Locals are key to a greater energy windfall
From an environmental angle, dual questions arise: What is the environmental balance of advantages and disadvantages of wind farms, and how can the public engage with emerging wind farm developments to ensure that the final product adds environmental sustainability to the benefits of wind power?
When developed responsibly, the environmental balance of wind farms is undoubtedly positive: many international environmental and conservation groups strongly support wind power. They believe climate change to be the biggest threat to birds and wildlife – a threat that wind turbines are designed to help combat.
Developers work closely with conservation groups and carry out rigorous environmental impact assessments (EIAs) before any work begins. Wind farm developers must often make special arrangements for wildlife in order to be given permission to build their wind farm.
Responsible development is greatly facilitated by the in-depth involvement of local people, usually referred to as interested and affected parties (I&APs). Wind energy projects need the input of their neighbours and communities. This is demonstrated by Denmark and Holland, where many residents have taken part ownership of wind farms and attitudes to wind energy are overwhelmingly positive. In the UK and the US, with communities often less proactively involved in the process, attitudes are more mixed.
There have been cases of lengthy delays and even refused development in some cases. Putting wind turbines in the right place is critical, and community engagement is a key element of achieving this: the most successful developments align their technical and environmental planning processes with public participation programmes, ensuring their proposals are seen as beneficial by all I&APs.
The EIA, which is carried out by the proposed developer, documents key information about the location and its suitability, including wind speeds, geography, species present, and electricity grid connectivity and availability. It also takes into consideration the location of nearby residents and communities and any other I&APs.
Every EIA takes about 15 months and costs about R1 million. It is led by an independent consultant and involves an array of independent experts dealing with factors such as birds, bats, agricultural land, geography, biodiversity, sense of place, heritage, and sound effects.
The final reports can be 500-1 000 pages.
All comments made by I&APs are considered.
If any issues of real concern emerge that cannot be mitigated, the EIA (and therefore the wind farm) is unlikely to be approved.
Projects that pass all of the above do so because they show a high level of sustainability with advantages significantly outweighing challenges.
Officially, public participation forms part of the planning process at every stage in South Africa. From scoping (initial site investigations) to final EIA submission, local people must be kept informed about the programme and progress of the proposal.
Comments must be recorded and summarised, and acted upon where possible.
However, community engagement is about so much more than this fixed and often one-sided dialogue.
Residents and stakeholders have something of real value for the development process: local knowledge. Sharing this knowledge not only informs the planning process and helps to ensure wind farms are built in appropriate locations, but empowers communities.
There are many ways residents can get involved in the development process, including attending public meetings, learning about the project, and meeting the development team.
They can also get involved early in the process to ensure their contribution can shape the project where appropriate, and engage with developers, asking questions and increasing understanding of wind energy technology and the details of the project.
And they can submit comments and share local knowledge, enabling developers to act on relevant information, as well as give information about the area, wildlife sightings, community groups, socio-economic challenges, agriculture and more.
Contributing to the process of nearby wind projects and seeing how their knowledge shapes the EIA is empowering for residents, ensuring they feel engaged with plans for the wind farm and what is happening in their environment.
Wind farm developers in South Africa are choosing to work with locals throughout the planning and development process, and use their local knowledge as well as offer them tangible benefits delivered directly by wind power.
As an example of this, one wind farm completed this year is providing insulation improvements and solar geysers to the homes of economically disadvantaged families in a nearby town. This is providing a real difference to many local lives, based on the results of a two-day dialogue between the developer and residents to determine what is needed most in that area.
The invitation and challenge to local residents is to fully engage in joint problem-solving mode so that the process can be enriched and local people feel a real sense of ownership which will improve their environment.
*Jo Reeves is with the South African Wind Energy Association. For more information visit www.sawea.org.za
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.